CHARACTER AND HISTORIC DOCUMENTS OF THE AGE OF THE MACCABEES
We have ascended the chosen mountain-top of thought. We have seen, in the Maccabean age, the full and vivid development of the doctrine of the resurrection, and of the retributions of a future life. Standing on this mount of vision, let us survey the present, the past, and the future. Let us inquire whence came these clear and sublime views of a future life? Who were these men and these women who thus anticipated the martyr-spirit of the Christian age? What were their habits of thought? What their books and historical documents? What the character of the age? In short, what means have we of reproducing, in sympathetic forms, the opinions, feelings, and acts, of the men of that age? We do not feel content with dry dates, or the skeletons of heartless abstractions. We desire to meet them heart to heart, and to sympathize with them in the great conflicts, physical, intellectual, and moral, in which they were called to engage. Nor is it from mere curiosity that we desire this investigation. It is indispensable to a thorough historical presentation of the great question which we have undertaken to consider.
For want of it, the history of the doctrine of retribution in the early Christian ages has been presented without a proper regard to its antecedent relations. In the most common histories of doctrines, such as those of Hagenbach, Neander, and Shedd, the subject is treated as if Christ were the fountain-head of the doctrine of future eternal retributions, and as though the history of opinions on this subject properly begins with him.
But the fact is that, in the three centuries preceding Christ, nearly or quite every form of the doctrine of future retribution had been developed that was promulgated and defended after Christ.
Leading Forms of Doctrine.
The three leading forms promulgated among the early Christians were – 1. The eternal blessedness of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the wicked. 2. The eternal blessedness of the righteous and the annihilation of the wicked. 3. The eternal blessedness of the righteous and the limited remedial punishment of the wicked, resulting in the final restoration to holiness of all fallen beings, and the unity and harmony of the universe in God. Every one of these doctrines of retribution had been held and defended before Christ came, by the Jews or among them.
In addition to these, in the early Christian ages the doctrine was promulgated of a conflict between two eternal and self-existent gods; one good, the other evil, each creating a system of his own – a conflict which involved in its issues the eternal duration of evil; though good was, on the whole, to be victorious in the conflict. This view, though promulgated by men claiming the Christian name, was generally regarded as extra-Christian and heretical. This view also had been promulgated in the centuries before Christ, and had come in contact with the Jews. Hence it is clear that the influence of these preceding centuries must have been deeply felt in all the early Christian discussions of the doctrine of retribution. It was, in fact, so felt.
Character of the Centuries Before Christ.
It has also been supposed that the centuries immediately preceding Christ were centuries of relative darkness, since prophecy and revelation ceased soon after the return from captivity, four hundred years before Christ, and in the interval the most important works of a literary kind produced by the Jews were those books entitled Apocryphal, and which by Protestants generally have been undervalued, if not contemned, under that title. Though intelligent Romanists esteem them more highly as a kind of Deutero-canonical books, yet the masses for the most part do not popularly appreciate them or the centuries during which they were written.
And yet the five centuries preceding Christ are some of the most remarkable centuries in the history of man, and most highly distinguished for an intense and wide-spread mental activity, in which the Jews participated, especially those at Alexandria.
Philosophers, Historians, Poets.
In these centuries flourished such philosophers as Socrates, Plat, and Aristotle, and also, except Homer, the leading poets and historians of Greece. In the same centuries the great luminaries of Rome arose, in whose light we still walk in our classical studies, such as Cicero, Horace, Virgil, and Livy. In these centuries was the great scientific and literary development of Alexandria under the Ptolemics. In this development the language of Greece took the lead, and the fact that the Jewish writings called Apocryphal are in Greek, and not, like the Old Testament, in Hebrew, is a result of that wonderful providence of God, by which the language of the Greek Testament was prepared.
Alexandria A Great Centre.
When Alexander founded Alexandria he created not only a great centre of political power, commerce, and wealth, but of literary and scientific development.
What was called the Museum was, in fact, a great royal university. “To it” (says Draper), “as to a centre, philosophers from all parts of the world converged. It is said that at one time not fewer than fourteen thousand students were assembled there.” In it were established two great libraries, which together contained 700,000 volumes. Here grammar and criticism were developed. Here the inductive sciences were cultivated under the lead of Aristotle. Here the world-famed Geometry of Euclid was composed. From this school came such mathematicians, astronomers, and geographers, as Appollonius and Eratosthenes. Its influences extended to Archimedes and Hipparchus. Draper says: “Astronomical observatories, chemical laboratories, libraries, dissecting-houses, were not in vain. There went forth from them a spirit powerful enough to tincture all future time.” In short, the intellectual activity of the Old World came to its highest development in the five centuries before Christ. In this respect he came in the fullness of time.
The Bible in Greek.
In the providence of God, the Jews and their sacred books were brought into the very centre of this great intellectual movement. When the Ptolemies carried above 100,000 Jews into Egypt they at once felt the power of the surrounding mental excitement, and studied the language, history, and philosophy, of the Greeks. As a result the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, and thus prepared for universal circulation. Thus, too, the Alexandrine or Hebraizing Greek of the New Testament was formed.
From this great movement came Philo, the celebrated Jewish commentator on Moses, whose works exerted a world-wide influence both in the Church and out of it; and Josephus, the eminent and well-known Jewish historian. Both of these lived near the time of Christ, yet they were not formed under his influence, but under that of the preceding ages.
What, then, are the writings commonly called Apocryphal? They are mainly historical and ethical compositions of Jews, to whom the Old Testament was the supreme standard of religious truth. Besides these there were works of religious fiction, intended to develop religious and patriotic enthusiasm for the institutions of the Jews.
At the same time they were under the influence of ideas which of necessity had come in through the thinking of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, to whom their nation was subjected in successive centuries. Hence, in view of the relations of the events of those ages to the future of Christianity, these writings are of great value and profound interest.
The same is true of the literature of those ages not commonly called Apocryphal, but rather Apacalyptic; such as the early parts of the Sibylline Oracles, the book of Enoch, the Fourth Book of Ezra, and the like. Indeed, in these are the most complete statements of the views then held among the Jews of the system revealed in the Old Testament, in its future development and final retributions. Thus in the book of Enoch there is a very full development of the rewards of the holy and the final punishment of the wicked, as conceived of at that time by a Jew.
I am aware that a prejudice is felt against such apocalyptic works, on account of the moral element involved in the false assumption that they were written by the authors whose names they bear; as, for example, Enoch, or the Sybil. But without entering into that question, it is enough to say that it does not affect their value for the purpose now contemplated, that is, the throwing of light on the thinking and feeling of the age of their composition. This may be illustrated by a modern example. In Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the angel Michael is represented as giving to Adam a long and tolerably minute prophetic outline of the destinies of his descendants. It is in form a prophecy; it is in fact a statement of history up to the days of Milton from his theological standpoint. To this is added Milton’s view of the future destinies of mankind, as coming from the lips of the angel. As a prophecy all this is of no worth, but it is of great value as throwing light on the opinions of Milton and of the great body of Christians of his age. In like manner the authors of these apocalyptic works represent the Sybil, or Enoch, or any other prophet, as predicting events according to what the writer held to be the true view. Regarded thus, they throw very great light on the thinking and feeling of the age in which they were written. In these works, too, is found a very wide range of thought and great mental activity.
Pharisees and Sadducees.
It adds a new interest to this age of the Maccabees to know that in it are the roots of the two great parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees, whose opinions on future retribution are so prominently presented in the New Testament. The Pharisees honorably represented at the outset those whose firm faith in the resurrection and the rewards of a future life sustained them in the great persecution. They truly represented the main body of the Jews, and they were zealous defenders of the law of Moses, but it was as encompassed with the traditions of the Fathers. The Sadducees, on the other hand, represented the Epicureanism that rejected the retributions of a future life, and they repudiated all efforts to introduce into the law of Moses by tradition what was not there in express statement.
To the sources of information already noticed we may add the Zend-Avesta and the recent learned investigations into the system of Zoroaster by German, French, English and American scholars. The question how far, if at all, what is regarded as the Christian doctrine of the future life and of retribution has been derived from the system of Zoroaster cannot be satisfactorily answered except by a thorough study of that system, and for this the materials and aids are more satisfactory and abundant than they ever have been before.
The Mishna is the first part of the Talmud, and is a digest of Jewish observances and traditions. Its author, Rabbi Juhudah the Holy, a Jew, wealthy and influential, composed it toward the close of the second century. Yet it refers back to the decisions of Hillel and Shammai, who flourished before Christ; and also to those of Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul. It is therefore of great value in studying the progress of doctrinal opinion as well as practice among the Jews, even before Christ. On some points at issue we shall freely appeal to this authority.
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